Digitising Family History and Whakapapa


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This guide was last revised 12 November 2009

This is a guide for those working on their family history or genealogy and wanting to scan, digitise, or digitally copy old family pictures, records and documents. There are important things you can learn about digitisation before setting out to preserve or scan your old family photos, picture postcards, recordings, newspaper clippings, or other materials from your ancestors.

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A digitally restored photo from a family history project

Like many of the pieces of paper, film and tape that make up records of our past, digital content is not built to last. Digitised copies are just as difficult to care for and keep as the originals, and in some cases can disappear much faster. Family photos from over one hundred years ago may be still easily viewable, yet a compact disc of photos may corrupt and become unreadable within a few years. It is important to use digital scanners, cameras and storage in a way that will increase, not shorten, the life of your family's historical records.

Used wisely, digital tools will allow you to share and build a resource that will last for generations. Here are some steps you can take, based on Make it Digital's content lifecycle to help make that happen.

Choose what to make digital

Deciding what to digitise for you family history and how to organise it can be a little overwhelming. Sometimes it's difficult to know where to start: should you scan those slides, get that videotape digitised, or transcribe a journal? Some basic planning and prioritising can help get you started. Here are four pointers drawn from our Make it Digital Scorecard.

1. Have a purpose

If you have made the decision to use a computer, scanner, camera or digital recorder to assist you with your family history, the next important thing is to decide what you want to make digital. It is easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of material you could record digitally, so start with a specific project in mind. You will have more chance of success if you can keep your project focused on just one of the following purposes to start with:

  • to make material easily accessible digitally to family members or others
  • to produce a faithful digital copy to protect a fragile or single original
  • to completely replace a failing original by making a new digital copy
  • to create a digital copy to become part of a new family record

You can work out your purpose by asking yourself which of these is most important to happen first. Chances are there is no need to do everything at once, so take your time. Having a clear purpose will also make it easier to seek advice or help if you need it.

2. Look after the original

Digital tools make it easy to create copies. You may think digital copying is like creating a digital time capsule or archive of your original family records, but digital copies are more vulnerable to damage or loss than many of your old family photos or papers. Unless your purpose is to completely replace a failing original (e.g. an old audiotape that is beginning to decay), always consider the protection and care of the original materials you want to copy first. If you can extend the life of the original while making use of the digital copy for viewing, sharing and adapting it will give you the best of both worlds. Questions to consider include:

  • are there any existing copies of the original, or is it unique?
  • are lots of people interested in accessing or viewing the original?
  • is the original being damaged by being used or not being properly cared for?
  • is the original difficult to access, view or use?

If the original is unique and you answered yes to any of the remaining questions, then digital copying may be an excellent way to help protect the original from further damage or loss. Keeping the originals for as long as possible while enjoying use of the digital copies will enable your heirs and descendants to enjoy all aspects of your family records. They can even make their own digital copies in the future using equipment and software that will be significantly better than anything used today.

3. Use the right techniques

Without some attention to preparation, equipment setup and file management, the results of your copying can be disappointing. If you have not had much experience at digital copying or recording, do a run through with practice items beforehand until you are satisfied with the result. If you are using a scanner or camera, check that it is clean and free of dust and smudges, and that all the details of the item can be seen in focus and without distortion. For digital recorders, check things like power supply, recording volumes and test the sound quality. Other techniques to improve your result include:

  • ensuring that you have prepared and organised the material you want copied or recorded before you start
  • use the right equipment designed for the job to ensure it will not damage or distort your material
  • have a method to consistently name and describe each digital file you create
  • unless digitising for a one-time use, choose a digital file format that will work with multiple software programs and hardware

The more attention you pay to learning and practising the techniques of copying and recording, the less likely you are to have to repeat the process. An organised approach will also enable you to complete the task more quickly.

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Example of scanned family portrait where the image and text are out of focus

4. Add long term value

Having a clear purpose will help you sort out what you are going to digitise, but it is also useful to think about how your newly digitised content might be kept or shared for different purposes in the long term. Your digital copy is now potentially a new family heirloom, so how will others in future find it, know what it is and be able to make use of it? It is worth taking some time to work out how you can add further value to the item. For instance you could take some photos of the person you are interviewing or the things they talk about for a digital recording, photograph the outside of a journal or an envelope as well as scanning the contents, or scan the writing on the back of an old photo. Some things to think about include:

  • is the copy or recording complete enough for someone to reference or understand without the original?
  • is it able to be found and used by others, whether family or future researchers, for their own projects?
  • are there additional qualities and context that can be captured by making more than one kind of copy or recording?
  • is there some way for others to know the value of the digital copies if you are no longer around to look after them?

Digital technologies offer us powerful tools for enriching and organising our family histories. As has always been the case, with digital content it is still up to those who hold and collect their family's records and memories to convey their value and meaning to others.

Create longlasting digital copies

Whether you plan to scan old family photos, transcribe old letters, or record a new family history digitally, the software, formats and settings you choose will directly affect whether your digital copies will be long lasting and usable over time.

There is a huge amount of advice on the internet about how to set up your digital equipment and software, some of it excellent, much of it poorly written or badly out of date. If you are looking for good or best practice, you need to refer to guidance that is current and addresses recent developments in technology hardware and software. Look for guidance that has been updated within the last three years and recommends the use of open standards. You can read more about our definition of good practice in our Getting Started guide.

Digitising family photographs, documents and objects

Whether you are using a digital scanner or a camera, before starting out with digital copying, it is important to understand the big difference between what you see on a computer screen and what can be printed out.

Cameras, scanners and monitors all create colour with light, while with printed items, colour is created with pigments. Viewing digital images on a monitor or projector transmits coloured light to your eyes, while viewing printed materials involves reflecting light off the colour pigment. As the number of colours transmitted by a monitor is much greater than the colours possible with pigment inks, a printed digital image is likely to be less dynamic (not as bright) in its colours than the same image seen on a monitor.

In contrast, the number of pixels on most monitors is many times less than the equivalent dots needed to print out a photograph. A portrait image that can fill the screen from top to bottom on a standard 17 or 19 inch LCD monitor is barely large enough to print out as a passport photo. It takes a minimum of 2 megapixels for a digital image to print out as a standard snapshot or postcard sized photograph, enough to fill the width and height of a 24 inch widescreen monitor or a full HD television screen.

Scanner resolution

When digitising any photographic image or document it is vital that you judge what size the image or document needs to be if it is printed out. As a rule of thumb, allow photographs to be increased by at least two times, and for documents to be kept at minimum at full size. That means for scanning photographs, have a scanner setting of 600 ppi (300 ppi x 2) and for scanning documents have a scanner setting of 300 ppi. If you are scanning negatives or slides you will need a higher resolution to achieve the same result. The Creating Digital Content guide has more detail on the formula to use.

Image format

The file format you save from your scanner will make all the difference to the quality of the resulting image. The best format for creating images that will last is TIFF (or .TIF). TIFF is an open standard maintained by Adobe, and is what is known as an uncompressed or lossless format. If your scanner does not have an option to save a TIFF, you should choose JPEG (or .JPG) at the highest quality setting (a setting of 10 or 12 in most software). JPEG is also an open standard but is a compressed or 'lossy' format. While it is a compromise format, at its highest setting JPEG does a reasonable job of keeping most of the image information. Even if you are scanning black and white images or pages, set your scanner to copy at a minimum of 24-bit RGB. This will make images much easier to edit or correct later on, and more versatile to use.

Digital cameras

For your digital camera, the sharpness and quality of your lens is much more important than the megapixel count. Using good lighting, a tripod and the right camera settings for your environment will help get a better quality image. You should also capture using the highest quality (largest) image setting on your camera to minimise the destructive effects of image compression. For most objects you are wanting to photograph, a capture resolution of at least 6 megapixels is adequate using the best quality camera you can find.

Recording family history digitally

With analogue audio and video tape recorders no longer being manufactured, it can be difficult choosing the right equipment and settings for recording oral histories and family events in a way that can become part of your family history.

If you are making digital audio recordings, there are two main things to look for in equipment, being the ability to record in uncompressed WAVE (.WAV) format, and an external, high quality, microphone. Dictaphones and memo recorders are not designed for this purpose and will leave you with a poor quality recording that is both hard to listen to for any length of time and difficult to archive. If you are on a limited budget, a good USB microphone attached to a laptop can provide a decent result. There are also microphone attachments designed for use with Apple iPods that are worth investigating, as iPods record in the high quality WAVE format. When searching online through auction or e-commerce sites, look for microphones or microphone attachments that record in stereo and are described as designed for podcasters, musicians and journalists. Remember also that you get what you pay for.

As few camcorders on the market now offer Digital Video tape (DV tape) as a recording medium, it can be difficult making a decision on a video recorder. DV camcorders will still give you the most flexibility to archive your recordings, but if that is not an option, look for camcorders with large hard drives and the ability to save the recording as H.264 or AVCHD format on your hard drive. Expect to buy one or more external hard drives for you computer for backing up, as a recording transferred to DVD will be much lower quality than your original. Avoid camcorders that record directly to mini-DVDs as they often do not work with DVD players. As with audio recordings, it is worth investing in an external microphone for your camcorder. A number of manufacturers have models that can be attached to the recorder directly, or you can buy one with a stand. Having a modern fast computer with lots of RAM and hard drive space for your video editing is also essential, as it takes a lot of processing power to edit video.

Protecting your digital copies

There's a saying that no digital file really exists until there are two copies of it. This reflects how easy it is to lose digital files - anyone who has had a memory card go bad or a hard drive fail will have experienced this. If you are spending your money and time selecting and creating digital photos, stories and family history, you owe it to yourself to have a back-up strategy.

To protect against hard drive or disk failure, you need to keep a second copy of all your important files on an external hard drive or copied to CD or DVD-ROM. If using CDs or DVDs, buy a recognised brand name and do not use re-writable disks - not all disks are the same.

If you want to protect against theft, fire or natural disaster, you should also make a third back-up copy that you keep away from your home. These can be kept at a family member's home, at a friend's or at work. Remember to make fresh back-ups regularly and whenever you have created content that is important or irreplaceable.

When you complete major milestones in your family history projects, one of the easiest things you can do with your digital copies is make lots more copies and give them to all your family members. That way many people get to share and experience your family's history, and you have an excellent way of helping ensure your digital history and stories are protected for many years to come.

Digital image compression

Digitisation resources

What's in a (file)name?

Transferring Oral Histories from cassette to digital

Free software for cataloguing images

Looking for Iwi and digitisation initiatives

How do I digitise an out of print book?

A Guide to recording Oral History (www.nzhistory.net.nz)

New Zealand searchable family history sources

Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives Online

Archway - NZ government records database

Cemeteries - NZ online cemetery databases

Cenotaph - biographical database of New Zealanders with war service

Community Archive - database of archival collections

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Hakena - catalogue of the Hocken Library's archives and manuscripts

Historical Births Deaths & Marriages

Matapihi - New Zealand pictures, sounds and objects

New Zealand Bound - Passenger Listings for Vessels

NZ Electonic Text Centre

NZ History

Papers Past - NZ historical newspapers

Tapuhi - catalogue of unpublished materials from the Alexander Turnbull Library

Te Ara - Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Te Papa Collections Online

NZ Society of Genealogists

Other NZ Genealogy links

DigitalNZ Search - NZ online digital content


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